Tech & Rights

Why is the Hungarian Government Waging a War on Civil Society?

As the Hungarian government strengthens its relationship with Putin, it has simultaneously launched a war against civil society, one of last free and critical voices left in Hungary.

by Hungarian Civil Liberties Union

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has much to learn from President Putin about political repression, but he is on the right track. During his first term, he introduced the System of National Cooperation, pushing through constitutional changes which weakened the checks and balances of democracy, and taking institutional corruption to an unprecedented level. He brought independent institutions and most media outlets under direct government control, and changed the election system in favour of the ruling Fidesz party. Apart from the weakness of the opposition, these changes made a significant contribution to his party's landslide victory at the April elections.

It appears that the next target of the ruling elite is independent, critical, civil society. As in Russia, pro-government commentators have launched a smear campaign against critical NGOs funded by international donors. They accuse us of being the agents of foreign powers. Political dissent is often condemned as unpatriotic, with a government press release labelling any criticism “an attack against Hungary”, “financed by George Soros”.

This rhetorical offensive has been followed up by administrative harassment, with the government trying to cut off independent NGOs from their international funding. Aside from George Soros’ Open Society Foundations, the NGO Fund operated by the EEA and Norway Grants irritates Orban’s government the most. The EEA and Norway Grants represent the financial contribution of Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein towards reducing economic and social disparities in the European Economic Area (EEA). The Norwegian government suspended payments from these grants in May 2014, following a Hungarian breach of the agreements concerning the implementation and monitoring of the Grants schemes. They did not suspend the NGO Fund though, which is operated by an independent NGO consortium, not the government.

In retaliation, the Cabinet Chief, Janos Lazar, sent an open letter to the Norwegian government, accusing it of meddling in Hungarian politics by funding NGOs which, he claims, have links to opposition parties. He commissioned the Government Control Office (KEHI) to carry out investigations against NGOs in receipt of funds from the Norway NGO Grant. The best evidence that this investigation is politically motivated is that KEHI re-published an article on its website, asserting that the “Left-liberals” and the “homosexual lobby” are behind the Norwegian NGO Fund. If NGOs refuse to cooperate with KEHI, they risk having their tax number suspended; in the longer run, they risk their institutional existence. The Norwegian government – soon joined by the US government - expressed grave concerns about this procedure.

Several Hungarian NGOs have received grants from the Norway NGO Fund, to strengthen civil society development and enhance their contribution to social justice, democracy and sustainable development. Most of these organisations were among the most ardent critics of the anti-democratic moves of Mr. Orban’s government, true; but they are not the puppets of opposition parties, as Mr. Lazar claims: Most were equally critical of previous administrations. For example, my own organisation, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) provided legal representation to Mr. Orban himself in 2007, when the Socialist government filed an absurd defamation suit against him. Our funding came from the same donors, on that occasion, but he accepted our help without a qualm. We have been fighting for the same causes and principles throughout, regardless of governments coming and going.

The same cannot be said of those “civil society” organisations which have received vast payments from the government to organise rallies in support of the government, or to run smear campaigns against the opposition during the election campaign. The best known example of these, is the so-called Civil Cooperation Forum (CÖF), headed by Laszlo Csizmadia, who happens also to be the president of the National Cooperation Fund (NEA), the government's main grant-making body. Csizmadia is one of the organisers of the so called “Peace Marches”, massive rallies involving tens of thousands of participants, bussed in from the countryside to the capital to demonstrate their support for the government. His National Cooperation Fund has given grants to organisations led by politicians of the ruling party, as well as to pro-government media outlets.

It is unlikely that government politicians really believe their own story, about human rights NGOs conspiring against the nation. One of the real motives behind their repeated and vigorous attacks is the desire to bring all sectors of life under direct government control, by eliminating, or at least weakening, all funding sources not controlled by them. Donors such as the Open Society Foundation or the Norwegian NGO Fund provide a unique opportunity for NGOs to grow and build partnerships - that is, a strong civil society capable of catalysing resistance against human rights violations and making the government more transparent and accountable. Mr. Orban, once himself a Soros beneficiary, has realised that a strong civil society is likely to put his budding empire in jeopardy.

Péter Sárosi/HCLU

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